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The Mind as Camera: Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog

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A Book Review by John Duncan Talbird.

In November 1974, when Werner Herzog was thirty-two, he walked from Munich to Paris, over five hundred miles in three weeks. Herzog had received word that his friend and mentor, film critic and historian Lotte Eisner, was gravely ill and would probably die. Struck with the kind of unexplainable romantic self-assurance that a Herzog character would have, he set off on foot, determined to walk all the way to her sick bed. He had been struck with the insane idea that if he walked the whole way, then somehow that would save her life. And so he did. He kept a journal and four years later, that journal was published under the title Of Walking in Ice. University of Minnesota Press has just republished this small book (translated by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg) and it is highly recommended for anyone who loves Herzog, both the filmmaker and personality. It is not recommended for anyone who loves traditional memoir. Likewise, although it details an amazing “stunt,” it is not recommended for anyone who loves those blog memoirs so ubiquitous in the internet age: “I made every recipe in a famous French cookbook and here’s the blog in book form!” or “I sold all my stuff and moved into a yurt!” Or that no-impact-man guy’s writing.

It is, however, recommended for fans of prose poetry. Or for those who are drawn to the stream-of-consciousness and surreal (i.e., readers who enjoyed this piece at FilmInt). Or readers who like to watch a man battle the elements and what that does to his psyche. Or those who would like to plumb the depths of a grief-stricken man who might also happen to be crazy. Or on drugs. Or both. Here is a representative quote:

Rambervillers. As I walk the word millet, which I’ve always liked so much, just won’t leave my mind, the word lusty as well. Finding a connection between the two words becomes torture. To walk lustily works, and to reap millet with a sickle also works. But millet and lusty together doesn’t work. A dense woodland unfailingly comes to pass. Atop the peak of a mountain pass two trucks converge, the cockpits coming so close that one driver can climb over to the other one without touching the ground. Together, never speaking a word to each other, they eat their lunch. They’ve been doing this for twelve years, always on the same route, always at the same place, the words are exhausted but the food can be bought. The forest slowly ends here, the fierce hills, too. For many, many miles, uninhabited woods sprawl all around, woods that served as battlegrounds in the First and Second World Wars. The countryside becomes more open and spacious. An irresolute rain drizzles down, staying at a rate where it doesn’t matter much. My output of sweat is prodigious, as I march lustily thinking of millet. (74-75)

Herzog 01The book is full of nutty word play like this, the kinds of games and fictionalizing that anyone engages in while he’s doing something repetitious. The book is also full of much beautiful description of the landscape of southern Germany and northern France, of interactions with random people he encounters – either directly, such as shopkeepers or fellow diners in restaurants, or indirectly, like the truck drivers above. He passes through history as he passes through geography. You almost forget that Herzog must have been writing these entries at the end of the day, because of course he couldn’t walk and experience and chronicle at the same time. And yet, like film, there is a vital sense of the now in his writing.

He writes like the filmmaker we all know. As I read the diary, I imagined Klaus Kinski playing the role of the young Herzog more often than I pictured Herzog himself. There is so much about the audacious adventurer going on a strange and dangerous journey like the ones we’ve watched Kinski endure in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). It seems much more likely that a Kinski character would engage in this type of stunt rather than the celebrated filmmaker who had released Aguirre only two years earlier. Likewise, these diary entries seem to channel the later documentary-maker Herzog narrating his tales of humans in their uneasy symbiosis with nature in films like Grizzly Man (2005) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and I could swear I was hearing that cinematic voice in my head. Early in the diary, Herzog (I almost typed Kinski) writes in a stand-alone paragraph, “Only if this were a film would I consider it real” (4) which probably says more about Herzog’s ideas about fiction and nonfiction, truth and myth, cinema and life than anything I might write here.

The Silver Berlin Bear-winning Herzog (for Signs of Life, 1968) bums change and food and hitchhikes (but not for long, because he feels guilty, as if he’s breaking the rules for this challenge). The man who had just released The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) earlier the same month (which would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes the following year) breaks into empty homes like a derelict in order to escape the rain and/or snow and to grab a quick and free meal. Herzog makes his mind a camera, capturing the world in photographic detail, making sense of it and lamenting the fact that we see so little of what passes as reality. He writes in this December entry:

So many dogs, from the car one doesn’t notice them that much, the smell of the fires, too, the Sighing Trees. A shaved tree trunk is sweating water, again my shadow cowers far in front of me. Bruno flees, at night he breaks into an abandoned ski-lift station, it must be in November. He pulls the main lever for the cable car. All night long the ski-lift runs nonsensically, and the entire stretch is illuminated. In the morning the police seize Bruno. This is how the story must end (62).

This is obviously notes for his 1977 film Stroszek intermingled with the now of his own experience. For Herzog, art and life are inextricable. That would be too trite to write in connection with most people, but it seems wrong not to say it about Herzog.

Ultimately, Herzog makes it to Paris. Ultimately, Lotte Eisner survives to live for nearly another decade. Herzog doesn’t take credit for this miraculous recovery though he doesn’t seem surprised to find her on the mend in her apartment. She doesn’t seem surprised to find him there either, gives him a chair to prop up his tired feet. I am not giving anything away. This conclusion is as if written, as if decreed by an Old Testament God in voice-over performed by Werner Herzog himself.

John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, REAL and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.

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